Trump and May - more alike than appearances suggest?

By Bernadette Meaden
February 14, 2017

As we watch the Trump White House in horrified fascination, are we in danger of tolerating similar attitudes and policies from our own government simply because they are expressed in a more subtle and sophisticated way? Is there a danger that outrageous and crass statements from President Trump will make UK policies that are actually illiberal and extreme seem reasonable by comparison? Are Donald Trump and Theresa May as different as we would hope?

In style of course, one could not get two politicians more diametrically opposed. By remaining almost invisible during the referendum campaign and keeping a relatively low profile during her party’s leadership campaign, Mrs May slipped smoothly into Number Ten without even the bother of an election. President Trump’s attention-seeking behaviour leaves the world aghast on a daily basis.

In policy and attitudes however, the two leaders have more in common than we might think. Theresa May’s vision of Britain breaking away from the shackles of the EU to become “A great, global trading nation that is respected around the world”  harks back to the days of Empire, and echoes Trump’s yearning to “Make America Great Again”. As Jonathan Freedland has pointed out, ”Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are speaking the same language.”

President Trump’s attitude to immigrants and refugees is of course notorious. But whilst he was reneging on President Obama’s promise to take 1200 refugees from Australia, the British government was also reneging on a promise to take 3,000 child refugees by closing the Dubs scheme early.  When Mrs May was Home Secretary and trying to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants, some of the policies she adopted were blamed for poisoning the public attitude towards migrants in general. Even Nigel Farage said her department's ‘racist vans’ campaign was ‘nasty’. And the government has found it very useful to scapegoat foreigners in order to divert attention from the effects of its own policies. ‘Health tourism’, which accounts for a tiny proportion of the NHS budget, has been used to distract from chronic underfunding. Migrants have conveniently been allowed to take the blame for a variety of problems caused by huge spending cuts.  

On health, President Trump seeks to abolish the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, which will mean that some poor people lose access to healthcare. Meanwhile, Theresa May presides over an NHS crisis which means operations are cancelled and waiting lists grow. Those who can afford it will pay to have their operations done privately, meaning that economic status is becoming more of a factor in healthcare here too.

Both leaders have had their plans frustrated by judges, Donald Trump on his ‘Muslim ban’ and Theresa May on her wish to trigger Article 50 without involving Parliament. Donald Trump’s reaction was a typically intemperate rant on Twitter. Here, the Daily Mail called the judges "enemies of the people", and Mrs May conspicuously failed to defend them. This prompted former Conservative Attorney General Dominic Grieve to say, “seeing that the government was a party to this litigation I think it was particularly important that it should disassociate itself completely from the sort of sentiments being expressed by the Daily Mail.”

Whilst President Trump is promising to cut taxes and dismantle banking regulations introduced after the financial crisis, Mrs. May and her Chancellor have threatened to turn the UK into a deregulated tax haven if they do not get the deal they want on Brexit.

Whilst the world was rightly appalled when Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter, our own government stands accused by the United Nations of "grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities". The UN’s report accurately reflects the impact of government policies on disabled people, yet Mrs May’s government rejects it and shows no sign of complying with its recommendations. 

Whilst we recoil at the spectacle of the President of the United States insulting reporters and refusing to answer questions from media organisations he dislikes, are developments here in the UK actually rather more worrying? A proposed overhaul of the Official Secrets Act could mean up to 14 years in prison for civils servants who leak information, and for journalists who report it. This has been described as “a full frontal attack” on whistleblowing. In her speech in January when she spoke about Brexit negotiations, Mrs May seemed to warn journalists when she said, “those who urge us to reveal more…will not be acting in the national interest.” 

President Trump has a notoriously troubled relationship with the truth, and we’ve all been astonished by statements coming from his team about ‘alternative facts’. But does our Prime Minister have as great a respect for the truth as we would like? Appointing as Foreign Secretary a man who has twice been sacked for lying suggests she may not consider truthfulness an essential quality in holders of high office.

What Theresa May's government does is often in direct contradiction of the beliefs and values Mrs. May expresses in her public statements. UK journalists have been very lax in pointing this out. At least with Donald Trump his appalling actions are matched by appalling rhetoric, so we are under no illusions.

Whilst President Trump is shockingly crass and attracts passionate opposition, Prime Minister May is a smooth operator who has gained the approval of most of the media and much of the public. But we risk being distracted by style, and so not noticing that in substance, their direction of travel and their priorities are far more similar than appearances might suggest.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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